Every good mafia don knows that the way to achieve more profit and power is to position oneself between things that people want and semi-legal services that a mafia can provide while corrupting institutions and law enforcers to allow the service to continue.
This may involve gambling or corrupting unions or moving drugs in a traditional mafia setting, but in a state setting, it can also mean putting a totalitarian regime state seeking legitimacy and profits astride the energy needs of another neighboring state. It seems the Assad family in Syria, which has plenty of mafia-like characteristics and mafia-like friends in Iran and Hezbollah, is now doing this to Lebanon's energy sector.
A senior Lebanese delegation went to Syria last week with the intention of trying to get Syria to be a conduit for electricity and natural gas. This would help ease Lebanon's fuel crises and the financial disaster that Lebanon is now living with. According to the reports, sending the delegation was an attempt to repair relations between Lebanon and Syria. This is mostly a false narrative because Hezbollah, which effectively controls Lebanon, is an ally of the Syrian regime and of Iran and Iran is an ally of the Syrian regime. Hezbollah sent many fighters to support Bashar al-Assad's regime during the war and Hezbollah conducts Lebanese foreign policy on some issues, and insofar as it does, Lebanon and Syria are allies.
It is true that Syria occupied Lebanon for decades, withdrawing only after Hezbollah assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. For a short period, it seemed that those opposed to Hezbollah and Syria might come to power under an alliance led by Saad Hariri, son of Rafic. To prevent this, Hezbollah launched a war against Israel in 2006 and then engineered a dispute with Hariri and his allies in 2008 over Hezbollah's demand to have its own communications network to support its state-within-a-state.
Fast forward to 2021. Lebanon is in a financial crisis. Most of the country is now on the verge of poverty. The country is billions in debt. Dangerous ammonium nitrate, stockpiled at the port, likely by Hezbollah, blew up last year and destroyed part of Beirut, killing over 200 people. Hezbollah holds the government hostage, has an ally in the president and has prevented a new Prime Minister from being appointed, much as it prevented a president from being appointed for years. This is the Hezbollah model: Hollow out Lebanon, turn it into a province within "Hezbollahstan," and then use it as a conduit for cash and corruption and weapons.
As Lebanon has sunk deeper into the swamp of Hezbollah's grasp, it has become poor and more lawless. Now the question is whether it can have basic things, like gasoline at the pump, or electricity. Once a wealthy, prosperous and open-minded country, Lebanon is slouching toward neverending disaster.
Enter the Syrian mafia state. When your neighbor is in distress the natural thing for the mafia to do is to offer its support but in return for a favor. In this case, Lebanon's delegation went to Damascus with the caretaker Defense Minister and acting Foreign Minister Zeina Akar, to ask Syria to enable Egyptian natural gas to enter from Jordan. It's an offer that Syria would like because it makes Syria a broker for Lebanon, it gives Damascus legitimacy and leverage. Magically, it transforms Damascus from a pariah, to "helping" Lebanon solve its crisis. Damascus rides to the rescue, and Syria's regime has wanted this opportunity for years.
"The Lebanese side asked Syria's help in facilitating the transfer of Egyptian natural gas and Jordanian electricity through Syrian territories. The Syrian side welcomed the request," said Nasri Khoury, the head of Damascus-based Syrian Lebanese Higher Council, a government-linked body for bilateral relations. He spoke following a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in Damascus, according to the AP.
Now, the important part. "The meeting is also a test for US sanctions against Iran and Syria, as Lebanon seeks to use Syrian pipelines and Iranian fuel through Syrian ports to tackle its power crisis," the AP report noted. This means that the real incentive for Syria is that it can escape sanctions. Iran has been shipping fuel to Syria this month as well, hoping to offload it in Syria and transport it to Hezbollah. A US Senate delegation that recently visited Lebanon warned against the Iranian fuel shipments.
According to a Reuters report, "the United States has been in talks with Egypt and Jordan over a plan to ease Lebanon's power crisis. The Lebanese presidency has said it involves using Egyptian gas to generate power in Jordan that would be transmitted via Syria, which is under US sanctions including the so-called Caesar act."
That means that Syria is basically saying to the US that either it will facilitate Iranian gasoline going to Lebanon or seek US support to go against America's own sanctions, to enable Syria to bring in gas and electricity from Jordan and Egypt, empowering the Syrian regime as it becomes the new boss of Lebanon's electric and gas needs. This is a brilliant maneuver for Syria. Egypt has been hinting it wants to bring Syria back into the fold. In addition, the Gulf states, Jordan and Iraq want a stable Syria and have also put out feelers to increase Damascus' role in the Arab league and welcome it back into the Arab camp. The point is that the Syrian regime was sidelined by the war and many countries even worked with rebel groups.
Today, there is no appetite for more Syrian rebels. Countries want regimes and stability. No one wants the extremism of power vacumes. But Syria's regime, backed by Russia and Iran wants things too. It wants trade, legitimacy and cash. It knows that relying on Iran is like a poor man relying on another pauper. Iran is under sanctions too. Syria wants the legitimacy that comes with brokering a deal with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon with quiet or tacit US support. This is the magic wand around US sanctions. And Iranian gas can flow as well to help Hezbollah. Everyone wins, in the Syrian regime view. Hezbollah wins. Iran wins. Egypt and Jordan can also get things. Iraq may win as well, as trucks from Iran transit Iraq to Albukamal.
A hidden aside to this may be why Russia brokered the deal in Dara'a that ended months of fighting and saw 50,000 people displaced. Now Dara'a is quiet. The short-lived rebellion there, the first since the regime retook the area in 2018, was a threat to Damascus and its image. Now, with Russia as a broker again in southern Syria, gas and energy can transit from Jordan. Big money and influence may be at stake.
Regional media sense that something is afoot. Al-Jarida in Kuwait noted that this was the first Lebanese visit of this kind since 2011. "This visit, the first since 2011, has two objectives; The first is technical-economic research related to the import of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity through Syrian territory. The second is political, giving victory to Hezbollah and an opportunity for President Michel Aoun to strengthen his political position, based on his relationship and his openness to Syria."
Al-Alam in Iran noted that "after the Syrian-Lebanese talks session at the Syrian Foreign Ministry building, Majdi al-Khoury said: 'The Lebanese side requested the possibility of Syria's assistance to Lebanon in passing Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity through Syrian territory. The Syrian side welcomed the request and confirmed Syria's readiness to meet that.'"
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.